On June 17, the Senate Armed Services Committee held its first hearing on the New START Treaty, with witnesses Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen. They all testified in favor of ratification. As in earlier hearings on New START held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticism of the treaty focused primarily on the treaty’s provisions with regard to missile defense, verification, and nuclear weapons complex modernization. Ranking members Carl Levin and John McCain framed the debate for the hearing in their contradictory opening remarks:
LEVIN: There have been statements made suggesting that the treaty imposes constraints on our missile defense plans and programs. That is simply incorrect…This treaty limits strategic offensive nuclear arms, not missile defenses.
MCCAIN: Secretary Gates, you have been quite clear, and I quote, “that the treaty will not constrain the United States from deploying the most effective missile defenses possible, nor impose additional costs or barriers on those defenses. While such assurances are welcome, they don’t change the fact that the treaty text, not just the preamble, but Article 5 of the treaty itself, includes a clear, legally binding limitation on our missile defense options.”
MISSILE DEFENSE, ARTICLE V, AND THE RUSSIAN UNILATERAL STATEMENT
In their prepared statements, both Clinton and Gates reaffirmed the treaty’s lack of legal restrictions on American missile defense. Clinton in particular devoted a significant period of time to discussing Article V of the treaty, which forbids both parties from converting existing ICBM or SLBM launchers into interceptor launchers for missile defense purposes. Explaining that the U.S. never had any plans to convert additional existing launchers for missile defense purposes, Clinton emphasized the irrelevance of Article V to American missile defense efforts:
CLINTON: I mean, we could have had a long list — you know, we’re not going to launch from any moving vehicle, like a car or a truck or a cow. I mean we could have said a lot of things that we’re not going to do. But the fact is, we weren’t going to do them, and we weren’t going to do this either.
Sen. McCain seized on the issue of the Russian unilateral statement in the Q&A. He noted that in the statement, the Russian government mentioned that it would consider exercising its right to withdraw from the treaty should the U.S. develop its missile defense capabilities “in such a way that threatens the potential of the strategic nuclear forces of the Russian Federation.” Both Clinton and Gates, however, were quick to dismiss the importance of the statement, with Clinton arguing it was as legally binding as a press release and Gates noting, “the Russians can say what they want. If it’s not in the treaty it’s not binding on the United States.” Gates also reiterated that the United States had no plans to develop missile defense on a scale that would threaten the Russian deterrent.
Later in the Q&A, Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss emphasized the importance of missile defense, arguing that “the issue of missile defense may be more important than any agreement that the U.S. and Russia enter into regarding nuclear weapons. And that’s because we’re much less likely… to face a nuclear conflict with the Russians than we are to be attacked or threatened by a rogue nation or a terrorist group that possesses nuclear weapons.”
RUMORED SECRET AGREEMENTS
When asked by Senator Levin if there existed any secret, side or informal agreements between the United States and Russia that might limit American missile defense, Clinton replied: “No.” A later question on the same subject by Maine senator Susan Collins elicited a longer response from the witnesses. Collins asked Clinton about the veracity of a news report that asserted the Obama administration was working to ink an as-of-yet incomplete deal with the Russian federation that limited U.S. missile defenses. Clinton and Gates both rejected the report’s claims, but suggested that the United States was seeking to cooperate with the Russians on a joint missile defense system, which could also include Europe. Towards the end of the hearing, Clinton revisited the issue of secret agreements, in what appeared as an attempt to preempt any future speculation:
CLINTON: …Number one, there is no secret deal. Number two, there is no plan to limit U.S. missile defenses either in this treaty or in any other way. And number three, on that score, the story is dead wrong. I want to be very clear about that because I don’t want anyone using what is yet again another inaccurate story to argue against this treaty. And as Secretary Gates and I have both said, we will continue to explore missile defense cooperation with Russia, but the talks are not secret and there’s nothing on the table or even in the wildest contemplation that would involve any limits on our missile defense. Instead, we’re seeking to see whether they can be expanded with additional capabilities for our system.
NEW START IN AN INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT
Unlike this week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on New START, which tended to discuss the treaty in a bilateral U.S.-Russian context, today’s hearing discussed the impact of New START on wider nonproliferation efforts. Both Secretaries Chu and Clinton emphasized that ratification would demonstrate the United States’ willingness to uphold its disarmament commitments under the NPT, thus illustrating American support for the global nonproliferation regime. Senator Hagan further reiterated the important nonproliferation benefits of New START in the Q&A:
HAGAN: …if the two nations that possess the most nuclear weapons — us and Russia — agree on verification and compliance of nuclear weapons and are committed to nonproliferation, it is possible to achieve consensus with other countries. It is important to encourage non-nuclear states to sign and abide by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ratifying this treaty will demonstrate our commitment to nonproliferation, sending a message and isolating Iran.
Secretary Gates also clearly shot down proposals from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and other Senators for building a national wide defense against Russia and all countries:
“Our missile defenses do not have the capability to defend against the Russian Federation’s large, advanced arsenal. Consequentially, U.S. missile defenses do not and will not affect Russia’s strategic deterrent. To build such a capability, a missile shield of the kind envisioned in the 1980s, is technologically unfeasible, cost prohibitive and destabilizing. Therefore, we have no plans to do so.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) gave his official blessing to the treaty:
“My own feeling is that if this New START treaty is ratified, it will be a small step forward for mankind, but a long way, I’m sure you’d agree, from the dream that people harbor of having a nuclear-free world.”